THE presence of Chinese vessels at the Panatag (Scarborough) shoal proves that Beijing will not easily surrender its maritime claims even if it has allowed Filipinos to fish there, Philippine Ambassador-designate to China Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana said Thursday.
According to reports, there are at least six Chinese coast guard vessels in and around Panatag that prevent fishermen from going to the mouth of the shoal.
Sta. Romana, a Chinese studies expert, noted that while President Rodrigo Duterte has seemingly secured a provisional joint fishing arrangement with Beijing, the sovereign rights issue at Panatag has not been resolved.
“That’s the way of asserting their claim. They’re not giving up their claim. That I think is quite clear,” he said during the luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club of Forbes Park held at the Manila Polo Club in Makati City.
Sta. Romana said Philippine Coast Guard personnel maintain their presence at the shoal to ensure the safety of Filipino fishermen “in case something goes wrong.”
In the past, Filipinos have been chased away by Chinese enforcers in the area. However, Filipinos who went to fish at the shoal were no longer harassed after President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China last month.
The challenge for the two countries’ coast guards, Sta. Romana said, is avoiding any provocative actions that may lead to another standoff.
The envoy also stressed the need for the Philippines to discuss with China the protection of the marine environment.
“The Chinese say they are also protecting the marine environment. Now, the question is the details: How to go about it?” he said. “It cannot be done overnight. That’s one thing and this is one of the issues that we still have to resolve.”
For now, he said Filipinos should be grateful for the “initial significant breakthrough” that the government has achieved to ease the tension in the area “and then we will move on from there.”
Panatag is a triangular chain of reefs and rocks surrounding a 46-kilometer lagoon, spanning an area of 150 square kilometers. It was seized by China after a two-month standoff with the Philippines in 2012.
“We’re in the beginning of a long march. The initial gain is very significant, something that was not achieved before. So I think we should view this as a sign of an optimistic path to move forward,” Sta. Romana said.